Judy & Punch (4 stars)

Judy & Punch

LFF 2019: Mirrah Foulkes stuns with her gloriously off-kilter first feature, starring Mia Wasikowska

The Punch and Judy puppet show has enjoyed a long spell within British cultural consciousness – diarist Samuel Pepys mentioned seeing an early form of it in 1662 in Covent Garden. More recently, it's been criticised for its trivialisation and reinforcement of misogynistic violence, of particular concern considering its primary audience is young children.

With Judy & Punch, Australian actress-turned-filmmaker Mirrah Foulkes addresses both this violence and the wider misogyny head on. A fictional retelling of the show's origin story, set in a gloriously off-kilter approximation of the late-Middle Ages British Isles, it's replete with wavering accents, dark humour, and rich worldbuilding. Most striking is writer-director Foulkes' clarity of vision and mastery of tonal balance; impressively, this is her first feature film.

It finds experienced, ambitious puppeteer Judy (Mia Wasikowska) increasingly concerned by her husband Punch (Damon Herriman), whose propensity for drunkenness and aggression leeches into their puppet shows and earns him applause. When one alcohol-fuelled moment of irresponsibility ends in tragedy, Judy is compelled to seek vengeance.

There's anachronistic detail galore in the self-aware dialogue, the score of electronica-infused classical music, characters practising tai chi, and the tongue-in-cheek character names: a Scaramouche here, a Sartorial Alice there. An Australian production, there are nods to Antipodean cinema throughout, with echoes of Mad Max: Fury Road's gender politics, a moment of retribution that subverts the power dynamic of a similar scene in The Piano, and one bonkers sequence in which Russell Crowe's famous words from Gladiator are directly quoted.

There are a few stumbles: an unnecessarily didactic speech towards the end destroys any semblance of subtlety in the messaging and, oddly enough, as a character, Judy suffers from having the least to do – though the reliably strong Wasikowska compensates well. Regardless, Foulkes confidently establishes herself with a lively twist on a well-known tale; she's certainly one to watch.

Screening on Sat 12 and Sun13 Oct as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2019. General release from Fri 22 Nov.

Judy & Punch

  • 4 stars
  • 2019
  • Australia
  • 1h 45min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Mirrah Foulkes
  • Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Damon Herriman, Benedict Hardie
  • UK release: 15 November 2019

In sort-of Middle Ages Britain, puppeteer Judy (Wasikowska) is increasingly concerned by her husband Punch (Herriman) and his drunken aggression. This fictional origin story of the puppet show is a dark, funny, highly impressive feature debut by writer-director Foulkes, and despite a few stumbles it shows clarity of…